The front page of the Books section of today's San Francisco Chronicle features a review of Terry Teachout's new book, Pops: A Life of Louis Armstrong, complete with a large prototypical photograph of the man with a trumpet to his lips. The headline for the review is "King Louis." The reviewer, Ricky Riccardi, is listed as "special to the Chronicle," which presumably means he is not on the Chronicle staff. I shall get to the question of his credentials after considering his lead paragraph:
Thirty-eight years after Louis Armstrong' death, Terry Teachout had made the possible, possible: He has written a definitive narrative biography of the greatest jazz musician of the 20th century.
Regardless of what the subject matter happens to be, superlatives almost always want me to run the other way; and a superlative that covers the rather arbitrary span of a century is one of the worst of its kind (to invoke a hedged superlative)! Imagine what would happen if you gathered a bunch of highly skilled and sensitive classical music performers and asked who was the best composer of the nineteenth century. The century went through so many changes in worldview that any effort to answer that question would be a waste of valuable cognitive cycles.
The same can be said of jazz in the twentieth century. The statement "I like jazz" is so vague that it is virtually meaningless. To choose an example far removed from the subject of this review, would anyone with a serious appreciation of the history, theory, and practice of jazz try to argue that Thelonious Monk was a "better" composer than Duke Ellington or the opposite? Personally, I cannot even say that I like one over the other. Some days I derive great satisfaction from listening to Ellington sides, but there are just as many days when I would rather spend the time listening to Monk recordings. Armstrong is certainly important enough to occupy a fair amount of space in my current collection; but would I compare him with (to stay in the trumpet domain) Clifford Brown, just because I have fewer Brown CDs. For one thing Brown had a tragically shorter life.
All this led me to wonder just who this reviewer was who could play so free with this particular superlative. The Chronicle runs this information after the review. This is not the best layout for my personal caveat lector habits, but at least I know reliably where to find the information. It turns out that Riccardi is the project archivist for the Louis Armstrong House Museum, not the sort of person whose opinions of Pops would be unbiased. On the other hand he probably knows a good deal about what has been written about Armstrong. Were he to say, "This is the best biography of Armstrong I have ever read" or even "This is the best book about Armstrong I have ever read," I would certainly take his opinion seriously. On the other hand I would not be so confident were he even to start making comparative statements about Armstrong and King Oliver. Why should I not assume that the dice were loaded at his table?
Am I being too hard on Riccardi? In another world I might have ranted that this is the sort of thing a good editor would catch. However, like it or not, we are now in an era in which we are expected to self-edit, even with the full knowledge that the author is always his/her own worst editor. Considering how insignificant the book reviews in the Chronicle have become, does anyone really care? That seems to be a problem far greater than whether or not a biased reviewer is recruited and then left unchecked.